KOH TANG ISLAND, Preah Sihanouk Province – “What happened here affected me more than two tours in Vietnam,” U.S. military veteran Clarke Hale said Tuesday.
Less than two weeks after the 1975 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, Khmer Rouge forces seized the cargo ship S.S. Mayaguez as it passed through disputed waters in the Gulf of Thailand, taking hostage its crew of 40 and sparking an operation that would cost 41 American lives and be called the final battle of the Vietnam War.
Just a month prior, the Khmer Rouge had seized Phnom Penh.
On the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Koh Tang, seven U.S. veterans returned to the island Tuesday—most of them for the first time—to retrace their steps and meet Em Son, the Khmer Rouge commander who had called the shots that took the lives of their fellow soldiers.
Mr. Hale, who was 27 at the time and had just been deployed to Okinawa, Japan, where the U.S. keeps a military base, sat on the white-sand beach here Tuesday recounting the failed rescue operation.
“When we got called up, we had been together in Okinawa for just two weeks,” he said. “I didn’t know my men. I didn’t know what to expect. They were very green and we got surprised.”
“The average age was 19,” he said. “We were not the battalion that should have been sent here.”
Some 200 U.S. troops were sent to Koh Tang on a mission to free the captured crew of the Mayaguez, who had already been transferred to Koh Rong Samloem and were released before the first shots in the battle on Koh Tang were fired. Nine U.S. military helicopters were shot down or crashed during the operation.
The veterans who returned to Koh Tang on Tuesday admitted they were ill-prepared for the Khmer Rouge troops that awaited them.
“All I was told was that we would meet light resistance from peasant farmers and old folks,” said Gale Rogers, who was 19 years old at the time.
“When I first flew over this place, I looked down and thought: How a place that look so beautiful gonna have someone on it that wanna kill me,” Mr. Rogers said.
“But when the helicopter door opened and my nose caught the smell of gunpowder, everything changed,” he said. “Em Son, he was battle-hardened for sure. He was fighting while I was still playing with toy trucks.”
Mr. Rogers was part of Company Gough, the second wave of U.S. troops that followed Company Echo into the hellfire on Koh Tang. He, like all but Mr. Hale and one other platoon commander, was a combat rookie heading in to the battle.
“Some guys just froze when they hit the beach,” Mr. Rogers said, going on to describe the chaotic rescue operation some 13 hours later.
“They couldn’t get the choppers in to get us out,” he said. “There was tracers set up here. Lots of crossfire. The choppers had to hover over the water and we had to wade out waist deep.”
As the first order of business here Tuesday, a plaque was unveiled to commemorate the 41 Americans and 13 Cambodians killed in the battle on Koh Tang. Mr. Hale choked up as he read out the names of his fallen comrades before Mr. Son, the commander who led 66 Khmer Rouge troops, recounted his version of events.
After removing the crew of the Mayaguez, Mr. Son said, the Khmer Rouge soldiers watched U.S. military helicopters land on and secure the container ship as Washington made failed attempts to contact Phnom Penh.
“On the morning of the 15th, when I could see the ship clearly, I opened fire,” Mr. Son recounted. “First, I just shot one bullet, and then the bullets came like rain.”
Mr. Son, who lost a leg to a landmine in 1992, sat on a plastic chair next to the memorial plaque and offered a rote chronology of the events leading up to the battle.
As he went on, the U.S. veterans crowded around him, growing anxious to ask questions about the fight. At the top of their list was the fate of three machine-gun men—Joseph Hargrove, Gary Hall and Danny Marshall—who were left behind while providing cover during the extraction. The U.S. military has listed them as Missing in Action, meaning their bodies have never been recovered.
Numerous theories have been put forward concerning the fate of the three men. Mr. Son told the veterans Tuesday that about a week after the May 15 battle, he sent out patrols to find “Americans living on the island” after noticing that Khmer Rouge food stocks were being pilfered.
“When we found the first one, he had no shoes, no weapons, nothing,” Mr. Son said.
As he was leading his prisoner, Mr. Hargrove, to a base on the other side of the island, the Khmer Rouge commander said the American attempted an escape.
“I fired my handgun once as a warning to stop running,” Mr. Son said. “I didn’t aim for him, but the bullet, it accidentally hit him.”
The shot was fatal.
Cary Turner, the cousin of Mr. Hargrove, has spent eight years trying to find out exactly what happened to his disappeared relative.
Mr. Turner was on Koh Tang with the veterans Tuesday. Over dinner, he said he was satisfied with Mr. Son’s explanation.
“For the moment, I am happy with the way Em Son wants to tell it. I respect him,” he said. “And for now, that is all I would like to say about that.”
Mr. Son explained that he had handed the other two captives to Meas Muth, the Khmer Rouge Navy commander who was charged in March with crimes against humanity by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
“Meas Muth ordered ships to come and take the two Americans to Sihanoukville,” he said. “The two Americans were passed to Meas Muth. I had no more information after that.”
Following the somber ceremony and tense questioning of Mr. Son, the veterans split up and made their way through the jungle to the island’s east beach, where much of the battle on Koh Tang took place.
Larry Barnett, another 19-year-old rookie during the battle, surged up the beach toward the tree line, swatting vines and branches out of his way.
“This is it boys. Welcome to the east beach, gentlemen and ladies,” he said, pointing toward a clearing where his men had hunkered down to engage the Khmer Rouge, who they soon realized were waiting for them.
“I yelled at the top of my lungs: ‘Boys, they know we were here. We gotta set up,’” he said.
Turning contemplative, the veteran removed his hat and took a seat on a fallen tree.
“You know, I was watching some college kids last night—I stayed up all night—I was watching these kids running around the street without a care in the world,“ he said. “That was us three months before this s–t. We didn’t do too bad. Not bad for a bunch of kids.”
“I was 19. I was one of the senior men,” he said. “Imagine that.”
After the Battle of Koh Tang, then-U.S. President Gerald Ford was criticized for ordering rookie troops into a battle on unfamiliar territory against a Khmer Rouge military that had been hardened by years of civil war.
Mr. Ford, however, called the operation to rescue the Mayaguez crew a success during a presidential debate with Jimmy Carter in 1976.
“And I can assure you that if we had not taken the strong and forceful action that we did, we would have been criticized very, very severely for sitting back and not moving,” Mr. Ford said.
Sitting on the pier waiting for his comrades to return and take the boat back to the mainland Tuesday, Mr. Hale, the platoon commander, said that Mr. Son, his Khmer Rouge counterpart, was no longer an enemy.
“I wouldn’t call him a friend, not yet. He is an associate,” he said.
Mr. Hale was left with many questions regarding the decisions that led his men to slaughter.
“We had poor intelligence. We lost men that should not have been lost. We left men behind—I can’t get over that,” he said. “Forty-one military servicemen for a crew of 40 on the Mayaguez —I don’t think that’s a fair exchange.”
“Ford said that the mission here was a success,” he said. “I guess my definition of success is different to his.”
(Additional reporting by Ben Woods)
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that 41 U.S. servicemen were killed during a battle with Khmer Rouge forces on Koh Tang island in May 1975. Nineteen of those deaths occurred two days earlier in a helicopter crash during an operation to board the cargo ship SS Mayaguez, which had been seized by the Khmer Rouge. The caption of a photo accompanying the article incorrectly stated that the 41 deceased servicemen were Marines. Those killed in the helicopter crash were members of the Air Force.